An investment in our infrastructure and skilled workforce is an investment in the future of our region.
Spring is here—undoubtedly the favorite season for contractors and construction professionals because it means it’s time to go back to work—building our region’s buildings, bridges, roads, schools, sewers and the infrastructure that delivers safe drinking water to the citizens of the region. Our local union contractors and well-trained, highly skilled workforce take great pride in building the establishments and infrastructure that make central Illinois a great place to live and work… and it shows. These contractors and construction professionals are the same individuals you see at church, coaching youth sports, and volunteering and supporting over 60 organizations throughout the region.
A key reason for such professionalism and a high-quality end product is that labor and management are truly partners in central Illinois. One overwhelming advantage we have over our competition is our Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee programs (JATC), which are administered by both union contractors and the affiliated trades. In central Illinois, our JATCs spend between $12 and $15 million per year on training, 100-percent funded by our construction professionals. In addition, our apprentices do not pay to go through their three- to five-year programs; they receive wages and benefits during their terms, and can earn credit towards a college degree. Not only are we in the construction business, we are also in the education business.
The construction industry is increasingly volatile, making it paramount that our training programs recognize and implement new technologies and efficiencies so our contractors can remain competitive and continue to provide a high-quality product for their clients. On time, in budget and with the utmost quality and safety is our motto, and without continually backing up that statement, we are out of business. Our value is on display every day, but without reliable, long-term investment from both public and private sectors, opportunities to exhibit that value are static at best.
Investment creates opportunity—opportunity for local construction professionals to work and earn a head-of-household wage; contribute to the local tax base; buy new homes, vehicles, wardrobes and life insurance; and enjoy dinner at many of the area’s fantastic restaurants. In addition, the union construction industry’s pension and health insurance programs are self-funded and in great shape. It goes without saying that people who live and work in the area and have medical insurance utilize local hospitals. Over the last five years, my affiliated construction professionals and corresponding health plans have contributed over $80 million at area hospitals and due to hard-earned pensions, our retirees continue to be active contributors to the regional economy.
Economic Growth Through Infrastructure Investment
As we are all aware, the lack of a state budget—combined with gridlock on the federal level—has greatly reduced the funding to maintain the safety and operations of our buildings and infrastructure, much less to improve and expand them in order to create jobs and strengthen the region’s overall economic viability. Over the last 35 years, federal infrastructure investment has fallen by half, causing state and local governments to increase revenue or make unwanted and sometimes detrimental cuts in order to compensate. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993, while funding for transportation and water infrastructure has decreased in real terms since 2003.
The costs of doing nothing are also significant. As detailed in the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers study, Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future: “Compared with baseline forecasts for the years 2012–20, the cumulative impact of deficient infrastructure due to continued underinvestment in the transportation, water, energy and port sectors is predicted to result in an aggregated loss of $3.1 trillion in GDP from the U.S. economy. Losses are expected to include $484 billion in exports and almost $1.1 trillion in total trade. As a result of this underperformance, job losses will mount annually, and by 2020 it is predicted that there will be 3.5 million fewer jobs throughout the country. In addition, the expected impact for every household in the U.S. will be an average loss of more than $3,000 per year through 2020 in disposable personal income, amounting to $28,000 per household over nine years.”
Infrastructure investment drives economic growth and increases the standard of living, but it doesn’t stop there. Productivity gains are additional byproducts of a well-performing, modern infrastructure. When supply chains are operating efficiently due to reliability, reduced fuel costs, maximized labor productivity and the reduction of delivery times, businesses are incentivized to reinvest into productive opportunities associated with growth and fiscal stability.
According to a Business Roundtable study from September 2015, Road to Growth: The Case for Investing in America’s Transportation Infrastructure: “While estimates vary regarding the impact on growth from infrastructure spending, the recent NAM/University of Maryland study put it as high as $3 in new economic activity for every $1 spent,” adding that “a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimated that every $1 spent on federal highway grants increases the recipient state’s GDP by $2 over 10 years, although the multiplier can be as high as $8 depending on the specific characteristics of the project.” Simply put, with today’s uncertainty, economic growth through investment in infrastructure needs to be a priority for which public and private leaders and all citizens should advocate.
Our Workforce and the Future
There is no dichotomy between the state of construction and the economic state of the region. If we want to attract and retain a talented, skilled workforce and create a region where our children and grandchildren want to call home when they enter the workforce, we need to act collaboratively to repair the “system” that has been in decline for many years. There are, however, many positive aspects of that “system” worth retaining and further solidifying.
Prevailing wage—the local cost of a construction worker, like the cost of a local commodity—and project labor agreements—community development agreements that require the utilization of local skilled workers—help ensure that our workforce, both union and non-union, are not subject to race-to-the-bottom wages and disappearing benefits. They provide contractors a level playing field, and protect owners from fly-by-night contractors. These policies might seem self-serving to someone who represents working people, but as detailed above, an investment in our facilities and infrastructure is also an investment in our skilled workforce… and the future of our region as a whole. iBi
Clint Drury is Executive Director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, an alliance of 15 craft unions which work together to improve the quality of life and job opportunities for over 15,000 union members across 13 counties.